Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.
The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police (PNP) is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, while additional security forces are responsible for border control and aero naval security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: harsh prison conditions; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits; and forced child labor.
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government generally respected this right, but journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel/slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: In July under the Cortizo administration, security guards from the National Assembly expelled a known television personality from the National Assembly media balcony to prevent her from covering a migration bill. Two days later the National Assembly budget committee met behind closed doors to avoid press coverage, which was not standard practice. Both actions resulted in complaints from opposition deputies and civil society leaders.
Libel/Slander Laws: According to local media, former president Ricardo Martinelli submitted 50 libel/slander lawsuits against local media, 26 of which were issued after he was declared not guilty on August 9 of illegal wiretapping. Reports stated Martinelli’s civil lawsuits against daily newspapers El Siglo, La Prensa, and Mi Diario included media employees whose work was not related to judicial or political reporting (editorial cartoonists and graphic designers).
In May Corprensa (which owns La Prensa and Mi Diario) was found guilty in a libel/slander lawsuit filed by former first lady Marta de Martinelli. The corporation was sentenced to pay $25,000 balboas ($25,000) in damages and 6,000 balboas ($6,000) to cover legal expenses.
On September 2, Martinelli filed a civil lawsuit against TVN Information vice president and television host Sabrina Bacal, seeking one million balboas (one million dollars) in damages for calling him a thief during a public interview.
Following these legal actions, on September 3, media associations Journalism National Council and the Journalists Forum for Freedom of Expression and Information issued a joint statement requesting the Judicial Branch and Public Ministry keep “vigilant” regarding the “growing trend to abuse the justice system, using it as a censorship, intimidation, and persecution tool against journalists and media.”
Media organizations and media leaders claimed these lawsuits hindered reporting on specific cases and individuals and were likely intended to financially damage media corporations.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status currently takes two to three years, during which only asylum seekers admitted into the process had the right to work. The current asylum application process can take up to one year for applicants to even be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval.
The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.
The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the Darien did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. The government reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons living in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.
Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained that they faced discriminatory hiring practices. In an effort to prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.
Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.
Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.
The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, continued to use a mobile registry office on their common border to register indigenous Ngabe and Bugle seasonal workers who travelled between Costa Rica and Panama and whose births had not registered in either country.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. Eighty percent of the victims were women and 63 percent of those were younger than 17.
The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment and both physical and emotional abuse. The law states that sentencing for femicide is a mandatory 25 to 30 years in prison. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious crime. The PNP Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence created in 2018 continued to have 190 agents trained to work these cases. In June, Roberto Moreno Grajales was convicted and sentenced to 30 years prison for the 2016 killing of his former girlfriend, Diosila Martinez. He had originally fled to Costa Rica after the killing but was extradited in 2018 to Panama.
The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program Mujer Conoce tus Derechos (Woman, Know Your Rights), which included a wide distribution of flyers. In May the National Institute for Women’s Affairs (INAMU) established 24/7 hotline 182 to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence. If the caller was at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the police.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports. During the year the Ministry of Labor, UN Development Program, and NGO SUMARSE began to develop a protocol for private sector employers on how to investigate and deal with labor and sexual harassment within companies.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law mandates equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Although an illegal hiring practice, some employers continued to request pregnancy tests. There were two cases reported in the countryside of temporary workers who terminated their pregnancies once the condition became obvious, presumably due to fear of being fired.
Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.
Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of August reported that 2,090 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed this figure was underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs and continued a program that used pamphlets in schools to sensitize teachers, children, and parents about mistreatment and sexual abuse of children.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security continued to prosecute cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed that commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. In September, seven Panamanians were detained for their connections to an international child pornography ring based in Brazil. For two and one-half months, Panama and Brazil worked together with authorities in El Salvador, Paraguay, Chile, Ecuador, and other foreign countries to capture and imprison the individuals responsible for this child pornography ring as part of Operation Luz de la Infancia.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities; however, the constitution permits the denial of naturalization to persons with mental or physical disabilities. The law mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities and requires that schools integrate children with disabilities. Despite provisions of the law, persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in a number of these areas.
Most of Panama City’s bus fleet remained wheelchair inaccessible. Media reports in August noted again that Metro elevators were frequently locked and could not be used. A lack of ramps further limited access to the old stations, although the newly inaugurated Metro Line 2 had ramp access. Most businesses had wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces to avoid fines, but in many cases they did not meet the government’s size specifications.
In September the National Secretariat for People with Disabilities began a free shuttle service from the city’s largest bus terminal for individuals with disabilities that needed to visit their offices, which were located in a residential neighborhood with limited public transportation.
Some public schools admitted children with mental and physical disabilities, but most did not have adequate facilities for children with disabilities. Few private schools admitted children with disabilities, as they are not legally required to do so. The high cost of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–precluded many students with disabilities from attending.
The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of 80 balboas ($80) for children with significant physical disabilities living in poor conditions.
As of September, 1,440 individuals with disabilities were hired by local companies per Ministry of Labor statistics. This was an increase from the yearly average number of individuals with disabilities hired between 2014 and 2018. The law stipulates that employers who hire individuals with disabilities receive tax breaks at the end of the fiscal year.
Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians. Cultural and language differences and immigration status hindered the integration of immigrant and first-generation individuals from China, India, and the Middle East into mainstream society. Additionally, some members of these communities were reluctant to integrate.
The Afro-Panamanian community was underrepresented in positions of political and economic power. Areas where they lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community. The secretariat was not supportive of the joint work between government entities and NGOs to ensure an accurate count of the Afro-Panamanian population in the upcoming 2020 census.
The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; no complaints were filed. The Ombudsman’s Office intervened in several cases before students with Rastafarian braids were permitted entry into public school classrooms.
There were reports of racial discrimination against various ethnic groups in the workplace. Lighter-skinned persons continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists. A July report by the UN Development Program and the National Institute on Women stated that Afro-Panamanian women were 10 times more susceptible to discrimination in the workplace than women from other races.
The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Indigenous individuals have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas (legally designated semiautonomous areas) for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups. The government also unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities. Government institutions recognized these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories not included when the original comarcas were created.
Government officers continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from the indigenous community, and many requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. In March the bill for Naso Comarca was sent to the Supreme Court of Justice to decide if it is constitutional after a veto by the president in December.
The Ngabe and Bugle continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam project, which became operational in 2017. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations. The Ngabe-Bugle and the government continued to negotiate details of the dam’s operation.
Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous persons had not received sufficient information to understand their rights and, due to the inadequate system of education available in the comarcas, failed to use available legal channels.
In February the government established the Governing Committee for the National Indigenous Peoples Development Plan, with three representatives of the indigenous groups and government entities to ensure the implementation of the plan.
Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.
Deficiencies in the educational system continued in the comarcas, especially beyond the primary grades. There were not enough teachers in these remote and inaccessible areas, with many schools poorly constructed and lacking running water. Teachers and students in remote areas of the comarcas continued to sporadically protest poor road and school conditions. Access to health care was a significant problem in the indigenous comarcas, despite government investment in more health infrastructure and staff. This was reflected in high rates of maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition, and an increase in HIV rates. The government continued to execute the Indigenous Development Plan jointly developed with indigenous leaders in 2013.
The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities.
The PNP’s internal regulations describe consensual same-sex sexual conduct by its employees as against policy and potentially grounds for dismissal. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) human rights organizations reported harassment of LGBTI persons by security forces as a source of serious concern. On July 5, the new PNP director general stated in a national news interview that members of the LGBTI community can be members of the police force as long as they do not conduct actions that could damage the image of the institution. According to LGBTI NGOs, no changes had been made to internal police policies prohibiting LGBTI persons from serving in the force.
LGBTI NGOs reported hospital personnel refused to provide medical services to a transgender individual in a public hospital in Changuinola, province of Bocas del Toro, early in the year. In June, after attending the Pride Parade, a young man was raped by two men after they saw a rainbow flag in his backpack. The victim sought support from a local NGO and filed a criminal complaint with the Public Ministry. As of November there had been no progress in the case.
As of September the 2016 class-action lawsuit before the Supreme Court of Justice requesting Article 26 of the Family Code, which refers to marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” and thus forbids same-sex legal unions, be declared unconstitutional, was still unresolved.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination, however, continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTI individuals reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines.
Human rights NGOs reported receiving complaints of labor discrimination when employers found out employees were HIV positive, despite the fact that the law prohibits discrimination against persons with sexually transmitted diseases, as well as their immediate relatives. Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. LGBTI NGOs reported at least one employer who allegedly sought ways to dismiss an HIV-positive employee who had 15 years of service at the company. Health Ministry representatives made a public call to employers to follow the law and asked laid-off employees to reach out to them for legal advice. Employers can be fined for not keeping an employee’s medical condition confidential.
In September the NGO PROBIDSIDA published concerns about a shortage of antiretroviral medications for treating patients with HIV/AIDS. PROBIDSIDA claimed that bureaucracy and lack of interest from administrative offices at the Ministry of Health and the Social Security clinics led to late purchase orders and late payment of providers, implying systematic prejudice against HIV-positive individuals within the health-care system.